Ghouta Chemical Attack: Syria's Assad Remains Unrestrained, Unpunished and Unrepentant Five Years On

Five years ago, the people of Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, were hit by a brutal chemical weapons attack. Both the eastern and western parts of the rebel-held suburb were targeted with rockets containing sarin gas, leaving residents choking to death.

The number of dead is disputed, but estimates range from 281 from French intelligence sources to as high as 1,429 from the U.S., including almost 426 children. Thousands more were wounded, some of whom will likely never fully recover.

It is highly likely that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was behind the bombing. Evidence suggests that even if Assad's forces did not execute the attack, whoever did had access to Syrian military chemical weapons stockpiles, surface-to-surface rockets and the know-how to deploy a large amount of sarin.

Assad and his Russian allies have accused rebel forces of staging the attack, but no evidence has been presented to support these claims. This is also true of multiple other chemical attacks in Syria during the past seven years of civil war, as Assad's forces continue to brutalize and crush the waning opposition forces with every method at their disposal.

According to the Syrian Archive, a human rights organization, there have been 212 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2011. The vast majority have been attributed to Assad's troops, though ISIS has also been an enthusiastic adopter.

A United Nations arms expert collects samples during an investigation into a suspected chemical weapons strike, in Damascus’s eastern Ghouta suburb in Syria, on August 29, 2013. Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations and a host of international powers have tried to stop chemical weapons use in Syria. Assad agreed to a Russian- and American-backed deal to destroy all known regime chemical stockpiles after Ghouta, though attacks continued regardless. The use of outlawed weapons has even prompted American-led airstrikes on regime research and storage facilities in April, though these also failed to stop the chemical attacks.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is still working on the analysis of several incidents. In September 2013, the watchdog confirmed that the Ghouta attack was carried out with Russian- or Syrian-made rockets containing large quantities of sarin.

At the time, the OPCW did not have the power to attribute blame and carefully avoided suggesting who was responsible. Last month, a United Nations vote gave the body the power to assign blame for attacks, a move bitterly opposed by Russia and Syria, meaning the organization need not be so restrained in future investigations.

Battling Chemical Proliferation

Syria has seen the most intense chemical weapons use in recent history, but the atrocities go against the prevailing international trend of regulation and control of such weapons.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force in 1997, prohibiting the large-scale use, production, development, stockpiling and transfer of chemical weapons. Small amounts of chemical material may be retained for research, medical, pharmaceutical or protective purposes, but all other stockpiles must be destroyed under OPCW oversight.

Only three nations—Egypt, South Sudan and North Korea—have not signed up to the treaty; Israel has signed but not ratified it. Many nations are still in the process of destroying their weapons—including the U.S—as the process can be very time-consuming.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, explained that Syria joined the CWC in 2013 after Ghouta and under Russian and American pressure. "They verifiably allowed for removal and destruction of some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons precursor material and equipment," Kimball told Newsweek. "But as we know, there continue to be chemical weapon attacks involving mustard gas and sarin in the Syrian conflict," he explained.

Just because a nation signs the CWC or even destroys part of its armory it does not necessarily mean it is disarming completely. "There's always going to be some doubt," Kimball noted. "With a verification regime, you have to strike a balance with how much time, money and energy you want to put into ensuring compliance." He added, "The question now is not is the CWC flawed but does the international community as a whole have the will to enforce it?"

A Syrian man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on April 5, 2017. Assad and his Russian allies have accused rebel forces of staging the attack, but no evidence has been presented to support these claims. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

The Limits of Control

Syria is not alone in using chemical weapons, though it is unique in its scale of use. In recent months, Russia and North Korea have been both suspected of carrying out high-profile assassination attempts abroad using chemical weapons over the past two years.

Russia's position and power of veto on the U.N. Security Council have made it difficult to punish Moscow—or Assad—for chemical weapon transgressions. Kimball said the Russian government has been shielding Assad to prevent him "from being held accountable for violations of international law or war crimes."

Though some nations are retaining and even using chemical weapons, Kimball said the risk of such weapons on a grand scale remains low. "The risk posed by countries like North Korea, which hasn't joined the CWC, or Egypt, which hasn't joined the CWC, of using their weapons in a conflict is relatively low," he explained.

Pyongyang's nuclear weapons are far more important to the nation's power projection than any chemical weapons, regardless of how horrific their effects—the use of such arms on a strategic level rarely makes sense. "There are very few cases where a country has a chemical weapons arsenal that poses a high risk of use," Kimball said.

Nonetheless, there are no heavy penalties for remaining outside the CWC. Some states may use trade restrictions or diplomatic ostracism, but for a state like Syria—which is already in a desperate situation—such steps seem trivial.

Kimball believes the 2013 deal for Assad to destroy his chemical stockpiles was an impressive achievement. But sadly for many Syrians, the dictator did not stick to his word. OPCW inspectors visited the regime's research sites and oversaw the dilution or destruction of the materials used to produce weapons, but this did not stop the crimes.

"The problem was that the Syrian regime remained in place; Assad's knowledge about how to produce chemical weapons remained in place," Kimball explained. "You can only dismantle what you know exists, and you can only dismantle what you have access to."